Immigrants in Battle and on the Home Front in the American Civil War

Fiona Deans Halloran. Civil War: People and Perspectives. Editor: Lisa Tendrich Frank. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2009.

In the 20 years before the Civil War, a massive wave of immigration swelled the American population. More than 3 million Europeans left their native lands to live in the United States. Although immigrants came from many countries, two areas contributed the largest numbers. These were Ireland and the various states of what is now Germany. Most immigrants entered through the port of New York, and most settled either in Northern cities or in port cities and towns in the upper Midwest. Chicago and St. Louis, in particular, experienced significant growth. By 1860, half of Chicago’s residents were foreign born, slightly less than St. Louis’s 60 percent.

A New Wave of Immigration

There had been Irish immigration into the American colonies from the beginning of their settlement. Significant populations of Irish immigrants settled the mountains of western North Carolina and the upcountry of South Carolina. They also populated New York City and New York State and a variety of other areas. Irish immigration to America was steady and significant between 1800 and 1840, but in the 1840s Irish immigration surged because of a terrible famine in Ireland.

In the Ireland of the 1840s, many families survived on tiny family farms. These farms produced various items, but survival depended primarily on the potato. When, in 1846, the potato crop failed because of a fungus, the Irish had few resources to sustain them. Mismanagement by the British government made the crisis worse. For several years, potato crops failed and the population of Ireland starved. In response, thousands of Irish families chose to immigrate to North America. For various reasons, the majority came to the United States.

German immigration to the American colonies began in the early 18th century. By the 19th century, a small but thriving German-American community populated both cities—especially Philadelphia—and rural areas. Towns like Germantown, Pennsylvania, were held up as examples of admirable immigrant communities: thrifty, diligent, and law-abiding. German immigration in the early 19th century was relatively minor but steady. Like the Irish, however, German immigrants began to pour into the United States as a result of a regional trauma. Whereas the Irish fled poverty and famine, the wave of German immigration in the late 1840s and early 1850s was the result of political conflict.

The year 1848 was a pivotal one in European politics. Liberals across Europe agitated for greater popular political participation, restrictions on royal privilege, and a greater role for intellectuals and the middle class. The resulting conflicts over representation are known as the Revolutions of 1848, and they convulsed cities and countries across Europe. In their wake, many intellectuals and activists abandoned their homelands in favor of the promise of greater political freedom in the United States. The Revolutions provoked, as well, a widespread sense of economic insecurity. As a result, an enormous number of German-speaking immigrants arrived on American soil seeking economic opportunity and a respite from political and religious conflict.

German immigration rose massively in the years following the Revolutions of 1848. By the end of the 1850s, more than 1.5 million German-speaking migrants had joined the nation. The year of greatest immigration was 1854, when more than 200,000 German-speaking immigrants arrived on American shores. For many, New York was the initial destination. From there, they spread out both to cities and rural communities. In New York City alone, the German population swelled so massively that by the time the Civil War began, New York was the second-largest German-speaking city in the world, after Berlin. In the Midwest, Cincinnati swelled with German immigrants, supporting four German-language newspapers, numerous German-speaking churches, and demands for German language instruction in public schools. By the Civil War, German-speaking immigrants and their families accounted for nearly 30 percent of the total population of foreign-born residents in the United States.

Other migrant groups also flocked to American shores. These included more than 200,000 French immigrants, and smaller groups of Swedes, Norwegians, Italians, Scots, and Spaniards. Jews came to the United States from a variety of lands, although they did so in relatively small numbers. Like their German-speaking counterparts, these immigrants founded cultural organizations, newspapers, clubs and benevolent organizations, and schools. In short, they built immigrant communities based both on shared heritage and a forward-looking vision.

One exception should be noted. Beginning with the gold rush in the late 1840s, thousands of Chinese immigrants settled along the west coast, primarily in California. Between 1850 and 1864, in particular, thousands of Chinese fled the country as a result of the Taiping Rebellion. Although the Chinese population grew steadily during the decades between 1850 and 1882, when Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, Chinese immigrants rarely were free to establish the same strong ethnic communities as their European counterparts. Chinese newspapers, businesses, clubs, and neighborhoods did appear, but they faced constant scrutiny from native-born and European immigrant locals—especially the Irish. Violence against Chinese residents was common both in cities like San Francisco and in the mountain areas where men sought gold. American culture and politics were usually closed to Chinese immigrants, sometimes by statutes banning Chinese from obtaining citizenship or voting.

By the time the Civil War broke out, immigrant populations had grown to such an extent that no government, no party, and no leader could ignore them. German-language daily newspapers debated the merits of Republican and Democratic politics, examined slavery as a labor system and a political choice, and asserted a political role for German immigrants in the nation. Irish politicians, likewise, participated in the many debates that prefaced the conflict. Immigrant communities smaller than either the Irish or the Germans read, wrote, and argued about the sectional conflict both within their enclaves and with their native-born neighbors.

For many of the families who had immigrated in the decades before the war, the conflict sharpened both their commitment to American citizenship and their opinions about America’s goals and limitations. In other words, they approached the conflict much as other Americans did, with anger, concern, fear, and patriotism.

Immigrants and Politics

Many American politicians considered immigrant communities a serious problem, both in terms of policy and politics. For those concerned with American culture and national identity, immigration posed a set of serious challenges to the assumptions of the native born. Could immigrants assimilate into American culture? What ought their political rights be? What was the effect of their culture on American society, and was it positive? And, sometimes most pressing, what could the role of Catholic immigrants be in a nation so wedded to its Protestant history?

Politically, a different set of questions emerged. As the Civil War approached, America’s parties began to clash in more and more bitter contests. Reform movements in favor of temperance, women’s rights, and abolition exerted ever-greater pressure on existing parties and sometimes succeeded in splintering parties into factions. Thus, as party leaders and candidates examined election strategies, they were increasingly aware of the potential of the immigrant vote. If immigrant voters could be mobilized in favor of one party or another, they might sway entire elections, especially in the North. Yet cultivation of the immigrant vote required compromise on some points. Irish and German communities, for example, were unlikely to respond favorably to temperance advocacy. And although the many Irish immigrants were indifferent to slavery, Germans were, on the whole, in favor of abolition on principle.

These two sets of questions led to a complex array of responses. The Democrats, Whigs, and Republicans all tried to combine various positions and issues to attract votes while retaining core constituencies. Winding through the politics of slavery, sectionalism, rising industrial economics, and social policy was the ever-growing immigrant population. Thus, as the Civil War approached, immigrants found themselves at the center of many political debates.

Immigrant Units

When the war began, immigrants fought on both sides for many reasons. For some, service as a soldier offered a path to citizenship. Just as military service reflected the responsibilities of citizenship for the native born, it could confer membership in society by demonstrating commitment to shared values. Military salaries provided a second reason to enlist. Not only did soldiers earn a monthly salary, but also bounty payments meant that immigrants who arrived with little or no financial assets could immediately support themselves.

Practical considerations were not the only motivation to enlist. In numerous cases, immigrants fought for political or social principles. Many German immigrants, for example, opposed slavery and believed it to be incompatible with democratic government. For them, a war to end slavery was philosophically appealing. Others believed that the Union could not be severed by secession. They fought to preserve the Union and to repress what they perceived as a rebellion.

For Irish immigrants, recruiters pitched the war in anti-English terms. Because the Confederacy sought English support, Union boosters argued, Irish men could fight the English by fighting the South. Even more powerful was the promise of military training. Many Irish people came to the United States as famine refugees. For these immigrants, English rule meant starvation and penury. Some hoped that, after a period of renewal in America, Irish nationalism could rise up against the English and take Ireland back under Irish rule. Military service offered training for that eventual conflict, and some soldiers believed that the Civil War was an opportunity to battle-harden Irishmen.

Although most immigrants fought as ordinary soldiers, there were immigrants among the highest ranks of military leadership. In some cases, these men led units composed almost entirely of immigrant recruits, units which proudly identified themselves as German, Scandinavian, French, Italian, or Irish. On the battlefront, the story of immigrants and the Civil War is one built around the creation and experience of immigrant units.

Many immigrants took great pride in fighting for the Union or Confederacy. In fact, immigrant units proudly proclaimed their heritage through official and unofficial names, flags, and banners. It is important to recognize that most immigrants who served in the Civil War did so in mixed units. Almost one-fifth of the men in the Union armies were immigrants or sons of immigrants and, of those, most did not join the units generally recognized as “ethnic.”

Units associated with specific immigrant groups were important, however, and they were distinguished by three characteristics. First, other Americans viewed them as immigrant units. Second, they perceived themselves, and represented themselves, as immigrant units. This identification was especially important for those that adopted specialized flags or uniforms, like the Louisiana Tigers or the Irish Brigade. Finally, immigrant units included men who were overwhelmingly drawn from one immigrant group or one kind of immigrant group (Scandinavians, for example). In many cases, immigrant units came to symbolize the incorporation of the immigrant group into American society and politics. In some cases, though, the immigrant units represented both heroism and negative stereotypes.

Even small immigrant communities sent units to war. The Norwegian community of Wisconsin heard, in 1861, that local Germans were raising a regiment of volunteers. Not to be outdone, the Norwegians raised their own unit, the Fifteenth Wisconsin, also known as the Scandinavian Regiment and the Norwegian Regiment. This unit included men from a variety of Norwegian settlements, including those in Iowa and Illinois. A group of Chicago volunteers formed St. Olaf’s Rifles, a celebrated part of the regiment. Also from Chicago came the regimental flag. On one side flew the stars and stripes, while on the other raged the Norwegian lion. The flag was the work of the Norwegian Society of Chicago.

The Fifteenth Wisconsin fought in 26 engagements, under the leadership of its celebrated colonel, Hans Christian Heg. Heg died at Chickamauga in September 1863, alongside more than half of the regiment. Heg’s Civil War service, and that of the regiment he led, has remained a part of the historical memory of the Civil War among members of the Norwegian-American community.

Swedes, too, contributed men and enthusiasm to the Union war effort. Most opposed slavery, although they had little experience with black Americans and held many of the same prejudices as their native-born neighbors. Overwhelmingly, they supported the preservation of the Union, and they volunteered to fight in that cause. Swedes joined existing units, including the Fifteenth Wisconsin, and fought with distinction. Some of the volunteers brought Swedish military experience to their Civil War service. Colonel Oscar Malmborg, for example, trained the Fifty-fifth Illinois, fought at Corinth, and attracted admiring attention from General Ulysses S. Grant (as well as criticism for his bad temper). John Ericsson designed the ironclad Monitor and convinced Abraham Lincoln that it could be an asset to the Union Navy. When the Monitor was finally afloat, its assistant engineer and one of its crewmen were also Swedish. John Adolph Dahlgren, also a Navy man, invented the “Dahlgren gun,” led the initial naval blockade of the war, and participated in the 1865 siege of Charleston, South Carolina.

In other cases, Swedish officers fought for the Union. A. C. Warberg did so, and wrote back to Sweden that he was confident that “officers from no nation have done their fatherland so much honor in the ranks of the American army as have ours” (Warberg in Barton 1975, 96). American Swedes pointed with pride to the contributions both of immigrant Swedes and those still in the service of Sweden. Like many other immigrant groups, Swedes looked, in later years, to Civil War veterans for community leadership. Colonel Hans Mattson, for example, became secretary of state for Minnesota from 1870 until 1872.

Like Norwegian and Swedish immigrants, Italians entered the United States through the port of New York City. Unlike the others, though, many Italians remained in the city to live. Politically active and socially cohesive, Italians in New York observed and participated in the party politics of the late 1850s and were powerfully motivated to fight in 1861. Francesco Casale, who founded the first English-Italian newspaper in America, recruited a group of volunteers called the Italian Legion. Later, he helped to create the Thirty-ninth New York Regiment, also known as the Italian Garibaldi Guard. Many of the men who fought with the Thirty-ninth were veterans of the wars of Italian unification and fought for Garibaldi in Italy. As a link to that experience, the unit wore red shirts, echoing Garibaldi’s army. They also linked the Garibaldi message of political liberalization, equality under the law, and personal freedom to the Union cause. The 39th Regiment is interesting from another perspective, as well. It contained not only Italian units, but five other immigrant companies. These included companies of French, Hungarian, German, Swiss, and Spanish immigrants. It is easy to imagine the challenges of language alone for commanders of this regiment.

Other Italians also raised volunteer units. Francesco Spinola recruited and commanded four regiments for New York. Count Luigi Palma di Cesnola used his experiences in the Crimean War to train numerous young Italian men who went on to fight for the Union. Cesnola commanded Union forces himself, as well. In June 1863, he was wounded and pinned under his horse after an engagement with Confederate J. E. B. Stuart in Virginia. Taken prisoner, Cesnola became an advocate for better treatment of prisoners of war.

Although their numbers were small, French immigrants were similarly eager to fight for the Union. In New York, they formed the Lafayette Guards, a company led by Colonel Regis de Trobriand. The Guards fought at Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, and Gettysburg. Trobriand was an unusual person. Descended from a distinguished French family, and married to an American banking heiress, Trobriand lived in a variety of locales. He settled in New York City in 1841, writing for its French-language newspaper and writing a novel. He then moved to Venice. In 1847 he returned to New York City, resuming his work as a writer and man-about-town. Thus, he was unlike many immigrants in that he had not emigrated directly and then started to establish roots in America. It was war service, from which he emerged a major general and an American citizen, which seemed to cement his commitment to the United States. After the war, Trobriand produced a history of the Army of the Potomac in French and commanded garrisons in North Dakota, Montana, Utah, Wyoming, and New Orleans. Trobriand died on Long Island, New York, in 1897.

As a measure of the possibility for confusion in an army composed of regulars, volunteers, and local and state units, there was another Lafayette Guard. This unit, a group of 80 men designated Company E of the Second Ohio Infantry, was composed mostly of German immigrants. It left Ohio on the governor’s orders to protect Washington, D.C., in 1861. Later, the Fifty-fifth New York Volunteers recruited heavily among French immigrants.

Although no Chinese units were formed, individual Chinese immigrants fought in both Union and Confederate units. The total number of Chinese soldiers is difficult to establish, in part because some fought under names that did not reflect their ethnicity. An example is Corporal Joseph Pierce of the Fourteenth Connecticut Volunteer Infantry. Sold to sea by his parents, Pierce caught the attention of Amos Peck, a descendant of one of the founders of Hartford. Raised by the Peck family, he joined a local unit at the beginning of the war. With his regiments, Pierce fought from Antietam to Appomattox. In addition, at least one Chinese soldier fought with the Avegno Zouaves, a unit of the Confederacy’s 13th Louisiana Infantry. The total number of Chinese immigrant soldiers is believed to be about 50.

The two largest immigrant groups, the Germans and Irish, contributed enormous numbers of men to the war effort. As many as 200,000 German immigrants and German Americans fought for the Union, and Irish soldiers filled regiments across the nation. The Eleventh Corps of the Army of the Potomac, the most famous of the German units, and the Irish Brigade both attracted intense public scrutiny as immigrant units. But many other smaller groups of men fought as well. In several cases, leaders forged in battle would go on to become active examples of the participation of immigrants in American politics.

German-speaking Americans raised numerous units, and German immigrants provided fighting men from the rank of private all the way up the command chain. Although about half of the Eleventh Corps’ men were native-born Americans, so many were either German-speaking immigrants, naturalized citizens of German origin, or Americans born to German immigrant parents that the unit was forever associated with German immigrants in the public eye.

Although Germany was not a unified country in the 1860s, German-speaking immigrants to America were usually lumped together as “Dutch” or “German” by their native-born neighbors. Likewise, the distinction between a new immigrant, a naturalized citizen, and the child of immigrants was only sometimes meaningful. American disinterest in differentiating between Bavarian and Prussian immigrants—or among the various citizenship statuses—reflected a common tendency to retreat into stereotypes. The Eleventh Corps suffered from this tendency, most notably in the aftermath of the Battle of Chancellorsville.

At Chancellorsville, the disastrous miscalculation of General Joseph Hooker was compounded in the press by the supposed cowardice of the German troops. On May 2, around 5:30 P.M., the Eleventh Corps found itself under fire from three directions. As the line crumbled, a disorderly retreat sent men tumbling back into the lines of their compatriots. Some of Carl Schurz’s men held their line briefly, but it, too, broke at about 6:15 P.M. In the end, the Eleventh Corps fought for more than an hour and a half without reinforcement, and suffered massive losses. When the Battle of Chancellorsville was over, there was plenty of blame to go around. The German units, though, bore an enormous share. They were mocked in the press and abused in letters and among army leaders. Schurz spent much of the rest of his life trying to rehabilitate the reputation of his men and of German fighters in the Union Army.

Schurz’s career was a testament to the leadership potential realized by German fighters. Four German Americans would become major generals in the Union Army. In addition to Schurz were Franz Sigel, Peter Joseph Osterhaus, and Adolph Steinwehr. Germans appeared among brigadier generals, as well. These men included Alexander Schimmelfennig, Louis Blenker, Frederick Salomon, August Willich, and Joseph Weydemeyer. German generals represented much of the history of German immigration into the United States. Sigel, for example, was a refugee of the Revolutions of 1848, in which he led radicals in Baden. Likewise, Salomon and his brother—who was governor of Wisconsin—escaped the Revolutions from Halberstadt.

As with everything else to do with immigrants and the war, these men did not necessarily agree about politics. Just as they had debated the merits of Republican versus Democrat before the war, Germans in America continued to participate in American politics throughout the war. This participation included conflict over military leadership. Louis Blenker, for example, supported General George McClellan so passionately that he led a torchlight procession of 2,000 men through Washington, D.C. His military career ended not long after.

The German-Jewish minority also supplied fighting men for the Union. Although many German immigrant areas, particularly in New York City, were divided between Catholic and Protestant religious groups, a portion of immigrants from German- and Polish-speaking areas were Jewish. Louis Gratz, for example, emigrated from Prussian-controlled Inowrazlaw, or Jung Breslau, now called Inowraclaw and a part of Poland. Gratz came to the United States with $10 and no English language skills. Unable to find work, he spent $7.50 on sewing notions, stockings, and shoelaces, and became a peddler. Life as a peddler was almost unimaginably hard. To make more money and out of desperation at his condition, Gratz studied at night to learn English. Eventually, he forged a partnership with another immigrant from Inowrazlaw. When the war broke out, Gratz found it impossible to continue in business.

Like many other men, Gratz was swept up in the fervor of the early months of the war. He volunteered for service in the Union Army. Although Gratz spoke good English, he could not read or write well enough to win a promotion. After his first four-month enlistment expired, Gratz obtained a meeting with Secretary of War Simon Cameron. Examining Gratz, Cameron found him capable enough for a position as first lieutenant in the cavalry and promoted him. Gratz ended the war as a regimental commander. In a letter to family, Gratz expressed pride in his accomplishments, satisfaction that he was “treated with utmost consideration by Jews and Christians,” and a determination that if he survived the war he would “return to Germany to live with you” (Marcus 1996, 220-224).

The most famous immigrant unit in the Civil War was the Irish Brigade. Organized in 1861 by Thomas Francis Meagher, the Brigade would see some of the most brutal fighting of the war. Included in the Brigade were the Sixty-ninth, Sixty-third, and Eighty-eighth New York Regiments, and later the Twenty-eighth Massachusetts Regiments, and the 116th Pennsylvania Regiment. The men who served in the Brigade were overwhelmingly Irish-born or the children of Irish immigrants. Like the Norwegians of the Fifteenth Wisconsin, the members of the Irish Brigade proudly displayed Irish imagery on their regimental flag. Green, with a golden harp or a golden shamrock in the middle, the flag came to symbolize the pride of the brigade in its immigrant heritage and the valor it displayed in combat.

In 1862, the men of the Irish Brigade fought all over the eastern theater, including at Second Manassas, Antietam, and Fredericksburg. Losses were enormous, and the bravery of the Brigade became famous. At Fredericksburg, on December 13, an attack on the stone wall at Marye’s Heights was nearly successful because of the willingness of the Brigade to charge without regard to massive casualties. Of 1,300 men in the Brigade then, 50 died in the assault, 421 were wounded, and 74 were either captured or unaccounted for.

Five men led the Brigade during the war. Three were killed in action. In the Sixty-ninth New York, 16 of 19 officers died. In the course of the war, the brigade included 7,000 men, but at war’s end only 1,000 remained. Casualties sapped unit strength and required constant recruiting to replace fallen men.

The immense losses helped to undermine Irish support for the war, as did the perception that the Irish Brigade was always fighting at the front line. Like so much else in the history of the Irish in America, the Brigade was both a blessing and a curse. It helped to demonstrate the fierce patriotism and impressive physical courage of the Irish. As casualty lists grew longer, however, the Brigade’s courage began to seem more like exploitation. Eventually, tension over the role of Irish men in the Union armies, and over the relationship of the war to slavery, would spark some of the worst riots in American history. Still, Irish-American pride in the exploits and sacrifices of the Irish Brigade was substantial and remains so.

Combat Experience

Immigrants experienced the war in a variety of ways. Motives for enlistment varied from Irish nationalism to American patriotism to simple economic need. Combat experience could be both triumphant and tragic, while camp life was often frustrating for everyone. Immigrant units, however, helped to establish a precedent for the place of immigrants in American life. By proclaiming simultaneously immigrant identity and a commitment to the Union, soldiers could assert their ability both to assimilate and to retain their heritage. Before the war, immigration had been the source of a great deal of political tension. After the war, communities could point to the service of their sons as proof that they had both a right to stay and a role to play in American culture.

Immigrants as Confederate Soldiers

Immigrants fought for the Confederacy, but usually in smaller numbers and in less homogenous units than did those in the Union armies. This difference was partly due to demographics. Fewer Americans lived in the South (as a proportion of the total population of the nation), and of those, only a small portion were foreign born. The South lacked the industrial development to lure immigrants seeking easily obtained work, and it lacked the major port activity that brought in immigrants to cities like New York and Boston.

However, one port city, New Orleans, supplied numerous foreign-born fighters for the Confederacy. In Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, the Louisiana Brigade was known as the Louisiana Tigers. Famous for their drinking and fighting, these men were also famously courageous. Immigrants from more than 20 countries joined their ranks, but the Irish accounted for the greatest proportion of foreign-born soldiers in the Louisiana Brigade. The Sixth Louisiana was almost entirely Irish, in fact. Recruited from New Orleans’s scruffy docks, Louisiana Tigers were sometimes called “Wharf Rats,” and their behavior reinforced the sense that their courage was matched only by their inability to obey orders. Thus, immigrants in the Confederate forces faced the same double experience as those in Union forces; their value as fighters was undeniable, but their status as immigrants attracted disapproving attention to behaviors common among many soldiers.

Farther north, St. Louis boasted both a large population of immigrant Irish and substantial Confederate sympathies. Those two qualities combined in the First Missouri Brigade, a unit of about 8,000 men that had substantial enrollments from the Irish and German populations of St. Louis and its rural hinterlands. The First Missouri fought long and hard, and it was considered one of the best units the Confederacy could field. Of the 8,000 men who comprised it, only a few hundred survived to surrender in 1865. The Missouri Brigade is of special interest in part because it was so well led and so courageous, and in part because it is an example of a unit in which native-born and immigrant men commingled without apparent tension. At the very least, the brigade represents a unit in which social difference did not interfere with unit cohesion and battlefield effectiveness.

St. Louis was not the only Southern city to supply German soldiers. Germans lived in a variety of locations throughout the South, notably in Richmond, Virginia, New Orleans, and Texas. Many shared the antislavery sentiments of Northern immigrants, but they also felt a strong tie to the land they had chosen. Just as in the North, prominent German confederates provided a model for immigrants loyal to the Confederacy. Charles Minnigerode preached to Jefferson Davis at St. Paul’s church in Richmond. In the Confederate cabinet, Charles Memminger served as secretary of the treasury. Captain Henry Wirz, superintendent of Andersonville Prison and another of the Forty-Eighters, provided an example to his fellow immigrants, if an ugly one.

Similar examples attest to the Irish who fought for the Confederacy. The most prominent of these men was Major General Patrick Cleburne, who arrived in the United States in 1849 and died at the Battle of Franklin. Many ordinary soldiers fought for a variety of Confederate units, including one that christened itself the Confederate Irish Brigade.

A small number of Norwegian immigrants also fought for the Confederacy. These men were drawn mainly from settlers to Texas, and numbered only in the hundreds before the war. Some evidence suggests that these Norwegians fought out of duty rather than with the compelling patriotic commitment of the Norwegians who fought for the Union. Complicating their service was antislavery sentiment, which was prevalent among Norwegians in Texas as elsewhere.

After the war, the South attracted even fewer immigrants than it had before the war. The region was not just defeated but devastated. As a result, service in Confederate units could not play the same role in asserting a national place for immigrants. Still, as the myth of the Lost Cause took hold, many immigrant communities in the South pointed with pride to the experiences of their soldiers. In that sense, the Northern and Southern immigrant soldiers were just alike.


The heroism of Irish, German, and other immigrant soldiers drew admiring comment from many Americans. Immigrant contributions on the battlefield assuaged tensions about the role of immigrant peoples in American national identity, but those tensions remained. There had always been Americans who opposed immigration and who felt that immigrants did not belong on American soil.

In the 1840s and 1850s, the streets of New York City saw many violent confrontations between criminal gangs. Some of these gangs replicated the ties of Ireland, attracting men from a particular county or village. Other gangs gathered men who hated the Irish. These men, who called themselves Native Americans and who are often called Nativists by historians, believed that immigration in general, and Irish immigration specifically, posed a threat to American society.

Nativism was both a social and a political force. It not only underlay gang activity in the streets of American cities, but it also formed the foundational political philosophy for political parties such as the Know-Nothings. Thus, as existing political parties competed for office, broke apart, and reformed in new configurations, Nativism and the status of immigrants moved to the center of political debates. The argument over slave labor versus free labor, for example, also required Americans to consider the role of the industrial worker, who was often an immigrant.

The Civil War both ameliorated and exacerbated existing tensions. Immigrant units performed well on the battlefield and attracted positive attention, but not all immigrants wanted to fight. In some areas, immigrant opposition to the draft became, in fact, a central part of the argument over the role of immigrants in American society. The eruption of violent riots in New York City in the summer of 1863 cemented the sense, among some Americans, that Irish immigrants were a dangerous element within the body politic.

The riots began with the Conscription Act of 1863. As the war progressed, it became more and more difficult to attract volunteer soldiers. Finally, the federal government assessed each state a quota. Should that state fail to provide the requisite number of soldiers, it would have to institute a draft. In New York, volunteers were hard to come by, and even large bounties failed to secure the necessary numbers. Finally, the governor instituted a draft.

Objections to the draft came not only from the immigrant community, but also from many other poor New Yorkers. The famous statement that the war was “a rich man’s war but a poor man’s fight” reflected the conviction that although wealthy Northerners planned and executed the conflict, it was the poor who fought and died. The ability of wealthy men to buy a substitute only added to the outrage. Race played a role, as well. Many Irish New Yorkers accepted racist stereotypes about black Americans. For years, conflict in the Irish neighborhoods of New York—especially Five Points—had victimized black New Yorkers.

The proximity of the Emancipation Proclamation and the Conscription Act, therefore, offered observers a racial explanation for the draft. To free the slaves, many thought, Irish men would be sacrificed. Opposition to the draft, then, was both class based and racialized. It rejected the idea that only the poor should fight, but it also rejected a war for emancipation.

New Yorkers were not the only Americans to oppose the Emancipation Proclamation, nor were Irish immigrants the only immigrants to oppose it. Democratic politicians convinced many working-class white Americans that freed slaves would take industrial jobs in the North. Some immigrant volunteer units, including a German unit from Wisconsin, disbanded rather than fight for emancipation. There was widespread tension over the proclamation and its relationship to the war. In New York, however, that tension joined with existing discontent, the losses sustained by Irish units, and the anxiety over the draft. The combination would prove deadly.

As the date set for a New York City draft approached, tensions in the city ran high. The incredible death toll from the Battle of Gettysburg only reinforced the sense that the war was destroying the nation’s young. When, on July 12, 1863, the names of the men who had been drafted the day before appeared in the newspaper, riots broke out almost immediately. Within a day, as many as 50,000 rioters had taken to the streets. Four days of violence ensued, leaving homes and businesses burned, more than 100 citizens dead, and the city government in disarray. Prominent abolitionists were targeted, and some feared not only for property but also for their lives. Black New Yorkers were a special target, and many died at the hands of the mob. In addition, rioters burned the Colored Orphan Asylum, a symbol of benevolent activism on behalf of free black Americans.

Draft riots erupted in cities other than New York. Working-class Americans of a variety of ethnicities objected to both the draft and the Emancipation Proclamation. But the New York City draft riots stuck in the American imagination. The threat of poor, Catholic, unskilled, and whiskey-soaked Irish immigrants, so long enumerated by Nativists, seemed to have come true. The heroic contributions of the Irish Brigade and other units like it were forced to compete against this mental image in the American mind from 1863 forward.

The vision of Irish men as violent thugs persisted long after the war. Chinese labor on the transcontinental railroad attracted Irish opposition from laborers who felt that the Chinese depressed wages. When Irish immigrant laborers attacked Chinese workers, the popular press compared that violence with the Irish attack on the Colored Orphan Asylum. As the century progressed, politicians exploited anti-Irish and anti-Catholic prejudice by referring to the draft riots as proof that even in the nation’s greatest crisis, the Irish had been more liability than asset.

For Jews, anti-immigrant feeling combined with widespread American anti-Semitism. In 1862, facing a chaotic trade in black-market Southern cotton, General Ulysses S. Grant issued General Order Number 11, which expelled Jews from Kentucky, Tennessee, and Mississippi. In another order, Grant wrote that “Cotton-Speculators, Jews, and other Vagrants,” must leave the Department of Tennessee because they were engaged in “trading on the miseries of their Country” (Marcus 1996, 198). Protests from Jewish leaders in affected areas, particularly Paducah, Kentucky, elicited a revocation from President Lincoln. Although Grant’s motives and personal feelings are the subject of some debate, the connection he drew between speculators and Jews was widespread among military and civilian leaders. Jewish residents of occupied areas, Jewish traders, and Jewish soldiers confronted anti-Jewish sentiment frequently. Because some Jews were native born, and others were immigrants, it is difficult to separate a specifically immigrant experience from that faced by a Jewish-American citizen.

For immigrants as a whole, however, the home front was a place much in step with the rest of the nation. The wives and families of immigrants confronted the same food shortages in the South and the same casualty lists in the North. Patriotic sentiment, too, motivated soldiers and their families, as letters home attest.


Millions of immigrants arrived in the United States in the years before the Civil War. They populated cities, founded newspapers and cultural organizations, and began to participate in American politics. Americans, however, were unsure about immigration. In politics and society, the status of the immigrant was a subject for debate and the focus of a variety of prejudices. Nativist politicians railed against the presumed decline of American culture and the dangers inherent in a Roman Catholic minority within the nation. As the nation approached a conflict over sectionalism and slavery, it also found itself grappling with complex questions about the role of foreign-born residents in American culture, economy, and government.

When the Civil War began, immigrant-dominated units became celebrated—and sometimes excoriated—parts of the armies of both the Union and the Confederacy. Immigrants fought for both sides, but the vast majority fought for the Union. This reflected both demographic differences between the sections and philosophical convictions on the part of immigrants. In addition, just as the citizen-soldier was a symbol of adulthood and political independence for native-born young men, the soldier as citizen offered an alluring opportunity for many immigrant men.

In the aftermath of the war, combat leaders rose from the ranks of immigrant units into national political positions. Ordinary men, too, claimed membership in the body politic and American society based on Civil War combat experience. Especially in the North, service in the war legitimated the presence of many immigrants and asserted a place for them in the nation. Like their neighbors, immigrants exploited the massive growth of the postwar period, moving west, starting businesses, and participating in the expanding consumer and industrial culture of the Gilded Age.